Thursday, March 23, 2006
Paddy Chayefsky’s Dead
Starting sometime in the 80’s film directors became art directors. The look of a film became more important than any other aspect of the film. So all of the guys who cared more about style than substance have been touted as geniuses. It is not unusual nowadays to hear a critic wax poetic about the look of a film regardless of the narrative substance of the film. Not to pick on Memoirs of a Geisha, but all anyone could say about it was that it was beautiful. One hears that a lot these days.
Many of my friends think I like old films because they are old, but this is not so. I like older films and filmmakers because they were better. The people who wrote and directed films before were 100 times smarter than almost anyone doing the job now. There are some exceptions like Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Frank Darabont, John Lassiter, Andrew Stanton, Steven Zaillian and a few others. But for the most part the people who get to make films today have a knowledge of film history that goes all the way back to Michael Jackson’s thriller video. They also have little or no knowledge of their storyteller’s craft. Meanwhile movies are getting worse and worse. Box-office is down for the third year in a row. Movies cost $10 bucks and we, the audience, get less for our money. Back when a person could go the movies for the amount of the loose change in their pockets they got a newsreel, a short subject and/or cartoon and a great movie. Sometimes you could see a live vaudeville act (called “coolers”) put on between screenings while the projector cooled. Imagine seeing a hilarious new Bugs Bunny cartoon followed by Casablanca or The Maltase Falcon. Today we pay a lot more for a whole lot less.
Hollywood blames the emergence of new media on the drop in ticket sales. That’s an easy scapegoat that takes the responsibility off of them. One of the most profitable times for film was during the great depression. You don’t think people had other things they could spend their money on? Things like rent and food. They did. But they went to the movies anyway. Guess why? They were entertained.
The storytellers of past generations just plan knew more about their craft than the current crop. They knew that there is a history of storytelling that goes back as far as humanity. They knew that they had to honor that history and the lessons learned from those who had come before. They also made astute observations about audiences and their reactions.
You can test this theory of mine by picking a current top filmmaker and reading an interview with them to see how much insight they have, then read an older interview with Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, John Houston, Frank Capra or Paddy Chayefsky. In these interviews you will find information that will help you become a better storyteller. These guys have the keys to the kingdom. They are the keepers of knowledge that is all but lost to the ages.
Two of the best books to read are Hitchcock/Truffaut, which is an extended interview with Hitchcock by filmmaker Francois Truffaut. And another is Paddy Chayefsky’s Television Plays. This book is great. The plays themselves are good, but what is even better are the essays that follow each play. Here you will read just how the stories were put together. It is one of the best books about story construction I have ever read. It’s like a mini film school. After you read these books most of the modern filmmakers will sound like troglodytes.
So next time you want to go the movies and see a good show go to the cemetery instead and watch Alfred Hitchcock and Paddy Chayefsky spinning in their graves over what has happened to their craft. I’m sure that will be a much more entertaining show than whatever they are showing at the multi-plex.